Riding is a humbling sport and one where we are always learning. Whether you show regularly, once in a blue moon, or never, it’s likely you’ve developed some riding habits that are affecting your equine partner and your effectiveness in the tack.
We reached out to three professional horsewomen from three different disciplines – dressage, show jumping, and western – and asked them to tell us what the most common riding mistakes they see are. Plus, they offer up some tips on how to fix them!
Canadian Nicole Stella trained with the late Jon Costin, and most recently with American Catherine Haddad Staller. During a stint in Germany, while working as a rider and groom for Haddad Staller, Stella had the opportunity to learn from some of Europe’s top trainers including Johann Hinnemann, Anja Engelbart and Morten Thomsen. She now operates Nicole Stella Dressage in Campbellville, Ontario.
The Issue: Sitting too still. We all want that picture-perfect position, but a lot of us forget how much control we require of our own bodies on our path to get there. As much as we want to “sit still” our bodies have to move in harmony with our horses. We have hundreds of stabilizer muscles that allow us to dynamically move in rhythm (think of yoga or Pilates poses and how they demand you to sit “still”). Those same muscles will help stabilize your leg against the horse, or keep your hands still on either side of the wither, while allowing your hips to move in rhythm with them. I strongly encourage my students and clients to participate in yoga, Pilates or weight training to improve their riding fitness! And always remember to breathe…
The Issue: Hand position. Many would think that a higher hand would bring the horse’s frame into that desired position (think poll up) but what that does is carry the bit higher into the horse’s mouth, resulting in them naturally wanting to lean onto it. If you pull down on the bit, it pushes onto the bars of their mouth and if you want to know what that feels like, think of the bit on your shins! Ouch! We want a quiet, relaxed hand to keep the bit quiet in their mouths, ideally in front of your tack just above the wither, but not too wide.
The Issue: Rein length. I see reins too long quite often, but having too short of a rein is a thing as well. We should have our reins short enough that our elbows are sitting comfortably in front of our rib cage and the horse is able to stretch their neck out and be connected. With too long of a rein, it brings your elbow past your body, giving you little to no control. If you have too short of a rein, the horse will raise its head to avoid that contact as their backs are probably not strong enough to be in that position and frame.
Final Thought: If I had to add one more … we are too hard on ourselves. Just have fun!
Canadian Holly Grayton, who hails from Victoria BC, relocated to Calgary 21 years ago and hasn’t looked back. She operates a thriving business with her husband, Alexander, another show jumping pro. One of Grayton’s career highlights was a second-place finish at the Spruce Meadows Masters in 2023 with her long-time partner Arthur. The Graytons have operated Grayton Farms since 2008.
The Issue: Stiff arm. This is one of the biggest things I notice in warm-up rings, teaching clinics, and just watching riders. The rider’s arm is such a crucial part of their connection to the horse: a following arm allows the horse to go forward, and to teach and encourage the horse to trust the rider’s hands through a good release might be one of the most important ways to improve your relationship. A soft arm doesn’t mean no contact; in fact, it really is the opposite. It means meaningful contact. The horses will learn that your hand is always there, respectful of their mouth, something they can count on for direction and not only to slow down.
The Issue: Not riding forward. I think most riders don’t ride forward enough. We can get very focused on the details, lateral movements and small work, and I think we don’t work forward enough. A soft arm is the beginning of this concept. I think the more blood or strong a horse is, the more they need to work forward. We need to get our dragons out and train them! We need to make our daily work more like what we are going to find in the show ring. I do a lot of collected work as well, but that is to supplement and strengthen the forward work. The number of times I see a horse coming out of the ring puffing is a sign of how few people are really galloping in their daily work.
The Issue: Lack of focus. In the show ring I think a lot of riders don’t spend enough focus on their plan. I like to talk a lot about everything in the plan from the moment you walk into the ring. What jump or area of the ring might your horse need to be familiar with before starting? Where do you anticipate your horse getting strong or falling behind your leg, and what should you do about that? The more you think about the plan, go over it ahead of time and visualize it, when you walk into the ring it will be already second nature in your mind so you can be more present while riding your round.
Final Thought: Surround yourself with good people, people that truly support you, that push you to be your best, that want your success. Dream big when it comes to mentorship, not only how you want to ride, but who you want to be as a horsewoman. #babessupportingbabes
Albertan Pat Ross is a Level 3 Certified Horsemanship Association Coach who began her career with Arabians and has since switched to Quarter Horses. She has been the director of Quarter Horse Association of Alberta and is currently a member of the AQHA Professional Horseman Association. Her students compete across North America.
The Issue: Last-minute changes. Riders tend to watch what’s going on around them and change things up right at the show. This could be your worst mistake ever. How very confusing for the horse and yourselves! Stick to the program you have established at home so you can go in confident and relaxed. Your horse will pick up on your anxiousness and stress and will usually do things that are uncommon for them as well. I believe the most successful team in the ring is relaxed and thinking calmly.
The Issue: Riding off your seat bones in the saddle. In western where we are on a looser rein it’s important to sit still as it impacts your horse’s speed and movement. Also, riding off your seat bones sometimes make your horse quit driving. Sitting back or deeper can help your horse balance more where you don’t need to use your reins so much to guide them. Your body position should influence what your horse does. Also sitting off your seat bones makes you clamp your thighs, which locks your horse up to a certain degree, which makes you and your horse look very stiff and tight. You shut down the flow on certain horses. The best way to connect with your horse in western and most events is to let your whole body move with the stride of your horse.
The Issue: Bumping your horse’s mouth with your hands. I see a lot of people do this. We might kick our horse to get them going and then bump the bit to say not so fast. How confusing for the horse. Keeping your hand still and making it possible for your horse to move into your hand and go forward with rhythm and softness is a winning ride. Your legs and body should do what you want your hands to do. Bumping your horse doesn’t necessarily slow your horse down or make them give to the bit. Sometimes it makes your horse more anxious and faster out of fear of what’s coming. It may make them grab the bit more to avoid the bumping as you have done it way too hard. They are then in control. Learn as much as you can about bits, how they work, the degree of toughness in their mouths. This is extremely important. Be aware all the time what your hand and body is asking your horse to do. Be a conscientious rider.